When Americans think of the Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, they often imagine a utopian bastion filled with free health care, expansive education, gender equality, generous benefits and generally happy people — with an occasional fjord and sauna thrown into the mix.
While rich and relatively content, the Nordic region is also grappling with a litany of problems that have confounded policymakers the world over. Climate change is an opportunity and threat to Arctic nations. Russian saber-rattling has the region on edge. Danes, Finns and Swedes have gone off to fight for the Islamic State. A tidal wave of refugees from the war-ravaged Middle East and North Africa has swamped countries like Denmark and Sweden, severely testing the Nordic reputation for tolerance and benevolence. Fears of radicalism and unchecked immigration have fueled the rise of right-wing political parties and xenophobic sentiment.
And the global controversy over offshore tax havens that was unleashed by the “Panama Papers” data dump has even ensnared the small island of Iceland, even though it is consistently ranked as one of the least corrupt governments on earth.
Security, refugees, sustainability and other pressing issues will take center stage on May 13, as President Obama hosts leaders from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden at the White House for a U.S.-Nordic Leaders Summit. Before the gathering, The Washington Diplomat sat down with the ambassadors of these five nations for an exclusive group interview at the Willard InterContinental Washington hotel to preview the upcoming summit.
The envoys — Lars Gert Lose of Denmark, Kirsti Kauppi of Finland, Geir H. Haarde of Iceland, Kåre R. Aas of Norway and Björn Lyrvall of Sweden — have found common cause on issues such as LGBT rights (all five embassies will be participating in the annual Gay Pride Parade in D.C. in June) and expanding the European trade agenda with Washington.
At the same time, sharp differences remain. Sweden, for instance, has absorbed the most refugees on a per-capita basis among all European nations. It also recently announced that it would allocate an additional $1.2 billion to hire more teachers and health care workers to cope with the influx. In stark contrast, Denmark has slashed benefits for refugees, published ads discouraging them from trying to enter the country and passed a controversial law that would seize assets and other valuables from asylum seekers. Meanwhile, Iceland, a nation of just over 300,000 — compared to Sweden’s 10 million and Denmark’s 5.6 million — hasn’t felt the same pressures as its Nordic neighbors, although it too has experienced a jump in immigration.
But as Icelandic Ambassador Haarde told us during our roundtable discussion, the U.S.-Nordic Leaders Summit will focus on the region as a whole, as opposed to individual nations. Among the myriad issues on the table: violent extremism, the environment, nuclear security and the refugee crisis.
“We had a Nordic leaders meeting with President Obama in Stockholm in September 2013 and we mapped a very useful agenda for collaboration, and I see this as a continuation of that dialogue,” said Sweden’s Lyrvall, noting that trade and LGBT rights will be discussed as well.
Norway’s Aas pointed out that the Arctic, energy and international military operations in the Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean are also on the agenda — as is climate policy and development aid, according to Lose of Denmark.
“This kind of meeting brings attention to the fact that we have this broad cooperation, common values, common interests, and it also gives added impetus to the concrete things that we are doing together,” said Kauppi of Finland.
The Migrant Crisis: Complexity and Solidarity
One of the most acute dilemmas facing the region is what to do with the thousands of refugees pouring into Europe every week to escape war and poverty in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Last year, more than a million migrants streamed into Europe, inundating front-line countries such as Greece as well as end-line countries such as Germany, which accepted the bulk of migrants in 2015.
Like Germany, the Nordic countries are renowned for their generous social benefits and have become magnets for migrants. All five Nordic ambassadors say the migrant crisis is a complex phenomenon that is often misunderstood in the United States.
“We are counting 163,000 refugees last year, which is roughly equivalent to 2 percent of the Swedish population. In the United States that would be the equivalent of 6 million people coming in one year, and most of these people came in a time span of two months,” said Lyrvall.
He noted that this unprecedented influx has stretched Sweden’s welfare services thin. Patience in some countries appears to be wearing thin as well.
Denmark has long been hailed for its hospitality, offering safe haven to Jews during World War II and Eastern Europeans during the Cold War. But the migrant crisis has sparked a populist, anti-immigrant backlash in the Scandinavian nation, and Danes have cracked down — hard.
In addition to passing a highly controversial law that would confiscate valuables from asylum seekers (items of sentimental value such as wedding rings are excluded), Danish authorities recently prosecuted a 70-year-old grandmother for human smuggling. Her crime: Giving several migrants who were stranded along a highway, including a newborn baby, a ride to Sweden.
The Danish government points out that the country, which is smaller in size than Maryland, took 21,300 asylum seekers last year out of a population of 5.7 million — the equivalent of the U.S. receiving 1.2 asylum seekers.
Lose says Denmark has historically offered sanctuary to those fleeing war and persecution, but it cannot realistically accommodate every migrant seeking a better life, especially considering the ample benefits the government doles out.
“We all have very well-developed states. The rights of refugees and asylum seekers are very extensive,” he said. “And of course there’s the security issue. I think it takes about 18 months before [a refugee] is even vetted to go into the U.S. In our countries, we don’t have a vetting system.”
Even Sweden, which has long prided itself on its open-door policy, is feeling the squeeze, sealing its borders, cutting refugee benefits and tightening rules for bringing over family members.
Lyrvall admits that the migrant crisis has “put extreme pressure on our social systems and has pushed other issues from the agenda. It has just been overwhelming.” But he insisted that Sweden won’t turn its back on those in need. “We are not about to close down the borders to our countries and say enough, no more refugees. That’s not going to happen.”
At the same time, he said other EU nations need to pull their weight. “Of course we’re asking for European solidarity so that other countries around Europe would also take their part of this burden. We have not been satisfied with the response of our European partners in that respect — some countries have taken more; others have not done very much at all. So the current situation is such that we’ve had to undertake some temporary measures to manage the influx,” Lyrvall said.
Among the temporary measures that nations such as Austria, Hungary and France have been imposing is tighter border restrictions, which threaten to unravel the EU system of passport-free travel known as the Schengen zone.
The bloc has struggled to implement a plan that would redistribute up to 160,000 refugees throughout the EU. So far, only a tiny fraction has been resettled as member states such as Slovakia balk at the idea of refugee quotas dictated by Brussels.
Failing to persuade other nations to pick up the slack, Germany spearheaded an effort to deter migrants from making the perilous journey in the first place. Under a recently announced deal, the EU will accept one vetted Syrian refugee directly from Turkey for every migrant deported from Greece back to Turkey. In return for helping to curb human trafficking along the Mediterranean, Ankara would receive billions of dollars in EU aid and the prospect of visa-free travel and progress on long-stalled EU membership talks.
Finland has already begun to accept some Syrian families from Turkey, but human rights groups call the proposal illegal and immoral. The plan also faces huge logistical hurdles, given that the onus to process asylum claims falls on cash-strapped Greece, which is still mired in its own economic crisis.
Asked if they were confident whether the EU-Turkey deal would work, the Nordic envoys had a simple response: There’s no other choice.
“This is the only possible solution. It has to work,” said Lose. “I’m sure there will be a lot of bumps on the road, probably some delays, probably another extraordinary European Union Council again discussing this, but it’s the only way to go. And again, the political process might look difficult, messy, complicated, but at the end of the day we’ll get there because we have to get there. Everybody has to take their fair share and we have to pour financial resources into Greece.”
“Everybody knows it has to work, and we need European-wide solutions,” Kauppi said, noting that last year’s migrant surge was a wake-up call for the EU. “I think the big shock was also to realize that unless we do something jointly, this is going to happen again. It is not just the over 1 million people who came last year, but it would be maybe 2 million this year and so on…. I’m confident that this is the start of a process where the common solutions will be implemented — it’s never 100 percent, but it is a start.”
Lyrvall agreed that perfection may be unattainable. “You obviously cannot be completely confident that all this will happen. We will have to work toward it … to help with capacity-building in Greece, to take part in receiving families from [refugee] camps … putting more funds in Turkey,” he said.
“But we also need to deal with the root causes of the problem and here’s where the United States comes into the picture,” Lyrvall added. “It’s really important to see the United States engaged … to address the root causes such as the war in Syria and peace efforts there and also the neighboring countries where refugees have been in camps.”
Kauppi echoed that sentiment. “We need to help the countries in the region which are hosting most of the refugees. We need to tackle the human smuggling and we need to also try to have an impact on the root causes, not only where you have a security crisis but where you have poverty. In all of these issues, the U.S. has a critical role to play.”
“The U.S. is already doing a lot. They’re the biggest donor when it comes to humanitarian aid and trying to solve the crisis in Syria,” Lose pointed out.
While the Danish ambassador praised the U.S. government for its involvement in Syria, he said the American media often understates the magnitude of the migrant crisis on Europe. “I really think there’s a lack of understanding of what we are going through and what the potential consequences of this is.”
Perhaps the most common misperception, according to Lose, is that the unwieldy bureaucracy of 28 vastly different EU nations will fail to deliver a cohesive solution to the migrant crisis.
“There’s a lot of pessimism in the U.S. when it comes to the EU and the ability to handle this crisis. I think that’s a bit overblown. If you look at the history of the EU, it doesn’t look good, it always looks messy, but at the end of the day, we will find a solution to this … so we will get there but I guess in that sense it’s a bit like Congress,” Lose quipped, alluding to the political dysfunction that has gripped Capitol Hill over the last several years (and earning a few laughs from everyone around the table).
Aas also lamented that many Americans “haven’t grasped the complexity and the volume of this crisis.” He pointed out that Norway has accepted immigrants from a broad spectrum of nations, not just Syria. Some 30 different nationalities arrived in Norway just last fall, he said. And while it will stand by its international obligations, Norway — whose center-right government wants to put in place strict family reunification laws for refugees — cannot absorb every migrant who comes solely for economic reasons.
On that note, Kauppi said it is important to make a distinction between refugees fleeing war and migrants searching for jobs (although human rights groups say the distinction is hazy in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq).
“And just to illustrate that this is a very complex phenomenon, about 70 to 80 percent of the people who came to Finland — that was about ten-fold the normal annual number — they were from Iraq, not Syria. And probably when they screen applications, most of them would not [qualify for] asylum. Actually already about 4,000, 5,000 have returned to Iraq.”
Even the sparsely populated, volcanic island of Iceland has seen its fair share of economic migrants. “We have not been under the same pressure as our Nordic friends and neighbors, partly for geographical and logistical reasons,” Haarde said. “But … we have had a much heavier stream of asylum seekers in my country — economic migrants looking for better living conditions, better medical care, etc. This number has risen dramatically.”
Haarde said that in addition to contributing financially to UNICEF and other humanitarian groups, “our government’s cooperation with local authorities has a system to try to integrate whoever wants to come [to Iceland] and provide them with services — medical care, school, jobs, language lessons and so on — and try to make sure there are no formation of ghettos, that people are actually integrated into society.”
Assimilation or Alienation?
The question of integration is one that haunts all Nordic nations. Muslims accuse their Nordic hosts of alienation and discrimination; natives counter that Muslims have failed to assimilate.
Lose says this is not a new debate. “We’ve all been working on this for many years,” he told us, noting that Denmark has long wrestled with problems such as whether kindergartens should serve pork on their menus (Islam forbids pork). “It’s a huge discussion … especially for Nordic countries, which are very, very homogenous countries, so it is a challenge, but we’ve been dealing with this for many years. Of course the attacks in Cologne put a lot of emphasis on that, but it’s not something new.”
A series of high-profile sexual assaults in the German city of Cologne over New Year’s Eve, allegedly committed by Islamic asylum seekers, sparked fears in Finland, Sweden and elsewhere about culture clashes, particularly with men from devoutly Muslim nations. The Nordic countries are pioneers in gender equality. Mothers and fathers are offered substantial paid parental leave, salary gaps between men and women are low and nearly half of all government positions are filled by women. The question of whether the region’s progressive values are compatible with migrants who hail from religiously conservative societies has prompted deep soul-searching.
Lyrvall said that while sex assaults garner headlines, immigrant success stories tend to fly under the radar. “Sweden is not a mono-cultural society; it’s a multicultural society — 20 percent of the population was born outside of Sweden. We have received refugees from different crisis areas over decades. These people have been integrated into society, they have been making great contributions to Swedish society — many of the household names in sports, entertainment, some of the best entrepreneurs with a go-getter mentality are immigrants who have made it in Swedish society,” he said.
At the same time, dozens of Swedes — as well as Danes and Finns — have gone to Iraq and Syria to fight alongside the Islamic State. Preventing foreign fighters from returning and launching Paris- or Brussels-style terrorist attacks has become a priority for European law enforcement agencies, as has stopping radicalism from sprouting in the first place.
Lyrvall said Sweden’s approach is twofold: contributing to the U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State — which for Swedish troops includes training Kurdish forces to reclaim Iraqi territory — and reaching out to families to prevent Swedes from being lured by the terrorist group.
Lose said Denmark has had the most success intervening at the community level, “where police and intelligence services cooperate with imams, religious leaders and social authorities, bringing all those groups together in order to get into contact with young people before they decide to go to Iraq or Syria.”
Lose also cautioned there is no one-size-fits-all profile for a jihadist, noting that a 2015 terrorist attack in Copenhagen was perpetrated by a homegrown terrorist — “not someone fighting in Syria or Iraq, but somebody who grew up in Denmark.”
Likewise, Aas cited the 2011 lone wolf terrorist attacks in Norway that killed 77 people to illustrate the fact that governments must tackle violent extremism in general, instead of narrowly focusing on counterterrorism. The attacks were committed by homegrown radical Anders Behring Breivik, who vehemently opposed Islam and immigration.
“We reach out to cities, we reach out to communities, we reach out to universities, we reach out to young children in order to discuss this phenomenon,” Aas said. “The answer is that you need a comprehensive national effort in order to succeed. I also think we have to recognize that this won’t take a year or two, but it will take decades in order to reach our objective.”
Cold War Redux
One security challenge that many Europeans assumed was behind them seems to have reared its head again: Russia, which is certain to be high on the agenda of the White House summit.
“Recent Russian behavior has caused a lot of concern for us,” Haarde said. “There is increased submarine activity around Iceland. There are these occasional long-range flights coming from the Kola Peninsula and [provocations] in the Baltic Sea area.”
As a result, Haarde said Iceland and other NATO members are beefing up their defenses against a resurgent Russia. “And I think that is the reaction that you’d expect and is normal when the partnership that we were all hoping for in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union did not really come through. We were all very hopeful in the early ’90s that we would be seeing a new world order with respect to our relationship with Russia. Unfortunately, it hasn’t turned out that way.”
Instead, Russia has flexed its muscles with aircraft incursions into NATO airspace and military exercises practicing the hypothetical invasion of Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark.
“We’ve seen the illegal annexation of Crimea, we’ve seen military incursions into a neighboring country, Ukraine, we’ve seen provocative behavior in the Baltic Sea area and our immediate neighborhood, which is also threatening the safety of civilian flights and activities,” Lyrvall said. “We are strengthening our defense structures in Sweden. We have a very broad consensus in parliament to increase defense spending.”
“At the same time, I would also like to say that even though we have a strong position against the Russian annexation of Crimea and [meddling] in the eastern parts of Ukraine, we still have cooperation with Russia since we are neighbors,” Aas said, citing areas such fisheries in the Bering Sea and resource-sharing in the Arctic.
Militarily neutral Finland, in particular, straddles a fine line between standing up to Russian aggression and accommodating a top trading partner. Kauppi noted that the population of Saint Petersburg alone equals the whole of Finland. “And of course for Finland having 1,300 kilometers of border with Russia, it is clear that we cannot ignore Russia.”
Nevertheless, that dependence hasn’t stopped Finland from supporting Western sanctions against Moscow for annexing Crimea, which have taken an economic toll on both the EU and Russia. “The direct impact of sanctions is there, but there is an even bigger impact by the fact that the Russian economy is going down,” Kauppi said, citing not only the slump in oil prices, but also “the lack of modernization in Russian society.”
“We have to show strength, but we also keep the door open to dialogue and we do cooperate on certain practical issues,” she said. “It’s a long-term issue so we have to be prepared for a long-haul effort.”
Another long-term issue sure to crop up at the summit is climate change, which touches the Nordic countries directly. Changing weather patterns are thawing Arctic sea ice at a rapid clip. On the one hand, new shipping routes will open, as will possibilities for oil and gas exploration; on the other hand, Arctic warming could dramatically accelerate the rise of sea levels.
Those changes will affect U.S. interests as well — Washington currently holds the rotating chairmanship of the Arctic Council — but so far climate change hasn’t registered as a high priority among many American voters. Despite the general apathy and Republican reluctance to embrace the science of climate change, Lose said President Obama has made significant strides in curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
“I think it’s fair to say that this administration has done a lot when it comes to climate change,” he said. Lose noted that U.S.-China cooperation ensured the success of the climate talks in Paris last December — cooperation that was sorely lacking at an earlier U.N. climate summit in his capital of Copenhagen.
“We are also very impressed with what is being done in the U.S.,” Lose added, citing the “ambitious” Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. “In Denmark, we are huge exporters of green technologies, one of our fastest-growing export sectors. And we see very promising developments in the U.S. when it comes to offshore wind, on-shore wind, waste-water management etc. And it’s not only a federal project; it’s mainly a project on the state level as well because clean technology has become good business. The largest wind producer is Texas. It’s probably not because they’re extremely concerned about the climate. It’s because it’s good business.”
Debunking Myth of Nordic Utopia
While all five Nordic countries consistently rank as good places to do business in, Americans often think of the region as a socialist paradise brimming with free health care, education and other lavish benefits. When we asked the envoys about the myths of the Nordic “nanny” state, the first thing all five practically screamed out in unison was: “It’s not socialist!”
The ambassadors conceded that their societies are highly taxed, but they stressed that taxes don’t come at the cost of innovation.
“We are open, transparent, innovative, business-friendly countries very much focused on our international relations. Our dependency on foreign trade is considerable. Fifty percent of Swedish GDP we owe to our foreign trade,” Lyrvall explained. “These are capitalist countries with a social welfare system but one that creates conditions on the labor market that produces very, very good results as far as our GDP growth…. These are countries that are hitting the top five usually or top 10 at least of every index we see, from … happiest countries or where you should raise your children or where you want to grow old.”
“But [we are] also on all the indexes of the most competitive, where to do business, the most innovative and creative,” Lose interjected. “The five countries are almost always in the top 10.”
Haarde pointed out that Nordic citizens have made a conscious decision to pay higher taxes in return for higher-quality services, none of which are “free.”
“I think it’s important to note that these are very healthy market economies with a social contract that stipulates that you should take care of the needy in terms of social benefits,” he said. “There is no such thing as a free lunch. All the public services are of course paid for by citizens through their taxes, so the level of taxation is correlated to the level of services provided.”
“I think in our countries there is a very strong feeling that the government is owned by the people, so it’s not a socialist institution that is taxing you. It’s us,” Kauppi added.
“Also when you compare it to the U.S., this sentiment of noninterference, it doesn’t exist in our countries. We rely on the state, we trust the state to do these kinds of things, we expect the state to do these kinds of things,” Lose said.
‘A Great Show’
Lose’s nation, in fact, was recently mentioned on the U.S. campaign trail. Democratic presidential contender Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has extolled the virtues of the Scandinavian welfare state. His rival Hillary Clinton retorted that, “We are not Denmark.”
“It’s very colorful,” Lose said of the U.S. presidential race, noting that he and many of his colleagues went to New Hampshire to observe the Granite State’s primary and were impressed by the grassroots democracy they witnessed. “You could go to any bar and you can meet all the candidates if you wanted to, even in a country as big as the U.S.,” he said. “It’s very interesting, very colorful and very different from what we have in our systems.”
Most of the ambassadors have backgrounds in political affairs at their respective ministries of foreign affairs (Haarde is a former prime minister). Following diplomatic decorum, however, none of the ambassadors would hazard a guess as to who might be the next occupant of the White House, although Lyrvall offered up a wish list of sorts.
“We really, sincerely hope that it will be an outcome of an election that produces a president who is responsible, who is also taking an interest in multilateral cooperation, ready to work with partners and to continue to keep the United States engaged in the world,” he said, adding that he finds it “staggering” how people from all over the world have kept up with the Iowa caucuses and other arcane minutiae of the U.S. voting process.
“This is obviously democracy in action and we learn a lot from it and it’s important for this great country, but it’s also extremely important for the world,” Lyrvall told us. “So what we are doing is observing something that has a direct impact conceivably on our own countries and the state of the affairs in the world.”
“Sometimes it is as if the candidates don’t always realize that,” Haarde quipped, prompting wry laughter from his colleagues.
Jokes aside, the Icelandic ambassador said he is concerned about the polarizing, nationalist discourse that has overtaken politics — on both sides of the Atlantic.
“I’m a longtime observer of U.S. politics, but I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like this before since the ’60s. We are not in a position to make judgments or substantive arguments on what’s right or wrong in this, but it seems to me that very unusual things are happening,” he mused. “There are a lot of undercurrents in politics it seems, but of course the political system here is very different from ours. We have parliamentary democracies where the executive branch has to have the support of the legislature to be able to function. Here you have a checks-and-balances system and it often leads to difficult clashes, maybe even more now than historically.”
Haarde noted that he plans on attending both conventions this summer, “and I’m really looking forward to observing what will be happening.”
Whatever the outcome, Lose perhaps summed it up best when he remarked: “It’s going to be a great show.”
About the Author
Anna Gawel is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.